Don't call Anthony Bourdain a "foodie". There's too much history as a renowned New York City chef to warrant such a fad gadget moniker. And don't call him a travel expert. He's been lucky enough to circumvent the globe in search of culinary adventures, yet his passion has always been a combination of location AND lunch. But whatever you do, don't call him a TV personality. He abhors the kind of cook with benefits that advertises themselves on various specialty networks. Instead, the well known epicure and entrepreneur views himself as an edibles archeologist. Bourdain believes in the by now age old adage that to understand a culture, you must indulge in its cuisine. Centuries of heritage and food folklore can be readily found in a loaf of crusty bread or a bowl of piping hot stew. After a less than happy stint on Food Network (which saw the suits filter his fire through some grating goofball approaches), he's found a solid state on sister station The Travel Channel. No Reservations, now chugging along for six seasons, has been the perfect showcase for his unique insights and ideas. Presented by Image Entertainment in a three disc compendium, Collection 4 continues his journey across this big blue marble, making sense of the various ways we quell our hunger.
Covering most of Season 4 while encompassing a single show from Season 5, the 16 episodes offered here give you a good overview of Bourdain's approach. Usually accompanied by someone native to the area he is in, he explores the high class eateries and the local back alley establishments, all to uncover the culinary tradition of said week's location. Here is what you will find among the three discs that make up this collection:
Disc 1: Vancouver/ New Orleans/ London - Edinburgh/ Greek Islands/ Jamaica/ Hawaii
Disc 2: Into the Fire NY/ Laos/ Tokyo/ Uruguay/ Columbia
Disc 3: Spain/ Egypt/ Saudi Arabia/Washington DC/ US Southwest
Inside the DVD case is a list of all episodes, including a brief write-up regarding what happens in each one.
With at least four other reviews of Bourdain's show on the site, it would seem impossible to find something new to say. Either you enjoy his snide, curmudgeonly take on the world, a viewpoint forged out of hard work, sweat, heroin addiction, a love for punk rock, '70s rebellion, '90s reflection, and enough gastronomic knowledge to sink your local supermarket or you find him irritating. He's not out to be loveable or perky. He despises the stunts that come with making a weekly TV series. He knows his stuff but isn't above exploring those realms unknown to his taste buds. He's the perfect host for No Reservations because, in all honesty, this is no ordinary show. Instead of playing tourists in a travelogue, or daredevil in a domain of deadly freakshow foods, Bourdain enters his assigned locale, sets up shop, and goes exploring. What he finds in the stalls and sprawling farmer's markets, what he picks up in places renowned for their attention to delicious detail, fuels an hour of discovery that, more times than not, leaves your feet itching to roam and your appetite whetted and ready for more.
With most of the growing pains out of the way (this is a far cry from the Food Network's Cook's Tour) Bourdain begins Collection 4 in Canada, not necessarily acknowledged for its haute cuisine concerns. But Vancouver holds as many surprises as the gourmet givens of New Orleans, the next stop on our digital dinner buffet. Filmed post-Katrina, it is a poignant, sobering, and frequently uplifting overview of a city struggling to come back. The upscale delights of London and Edinburgh lead to the Greek Islands, where Tony really discovers the magic of the Mediterranean. Jamaica is another stunning example of brilliant food wedged into a world of wonders - as well as poverty and poetry. The nation is indeed as beautiful as it is destitute. The first half of the three DVD set rounds out in Hawaii, New York City (for a compelling detour as our host tries to relive his old double shift days at Brasserie Les Halles) and of all places, Laos. It is here where Bourdain discovers yet another Asian cuisine that defines itself on ingredients, the application of same, and the desire to be defiantly different that its far more famous neighbors.
From there on, it's over to Tokyo for some post-modern musings on high tech taste treats, Uruguay (and some of the best food of the series), Columbia, and the classic cooking of Spain. A trip through the Middle East, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia provides as much politics as perspective, especially in the area of gender equity and "Ugly American" consensus, while Washington DC and the American Southwest open up whole new worlds of culinary concerns. All the while, Bourdain narrates in a kind of cynical beat Jack Kerouac cadence. With tasty tell-alls like Kitchen Confidential under his belt, the man knows how to write. Yet if there is one flaw in his presentation, a glitch that gives No Reservations its sole strategic misstep, it's Bourdain's belief that everyone is exactly like him. He's not out to make some universal statement or four course meal maxim. Instead, it's all about insular observations and pleasures that only he can partake in. Like Michael Palin exploring the planet one massive world tour at a time, Bourdain lives a life few could even imagine. This leisure time envy combined with his sometime surly approach doesn't outwardly detract from No Reservations. It just makes it an acquired taste, like so many of the dishes our tour guide discovers.
Offered by Image Entertainment in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the visual element of No Reservations is often striking. While it's no BBC production (those Brits can make a junk automobile rolling across the countryside in Wales look like Stanley Kubrick), it's very compelling to watch. The colors are deep and the contrasts sharp. The various locations come across with ambience and atmosphere and the whole thing gives off an aura of underhanded travelogue. As far as TV transfers go, this one is first rate.
Nothing much to acknowledge here. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 capture Bourdain's narration in crystal clarity, while the musical score and ancillary noise are balanced out beautifully. There can be occasional issues with the onsite conversations, especially when you consider the crowds and chaotic circumstances he often finds himself in. But overall, this is a polished and professional offering.
There's also not much worth mentioning here as well. We get a bunch of Travel Channel promos that, while fun, really are nothing more than clever commercials. Bourdain also sits down with Christopher Collins, his Executive Producer. They discuss some interesting behind the scenes anecdotes. Finally, a collection of online interviews with famous faces like Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent provide the balance of the bonus features. Overall, the added content is decent but clearly not definitive.
This critic has always like Bourdain, his "in-yer-rottin'-face" abrasiveness meshed with a real grasp of the importance of food. But since he's been doing this a very long time, his sincerity is quickly de-evolving into shtick. This is not to say that No Reservations doesn't delight. Indeed, it's a Highly Recommended travel and tasting experience. But at the end of the journey, when you've packed up your own personal picnic kit and settled down to a supper of leftovers, fast food, or some other self-inflicted swill, Bourdain's charmed choice of career will leave you feeling a bit peckish. It's part of the problem with shows like these. Your host gets to travel the globe, sit down to sumptuous feasts, unearth societal secrets, and get paid a healthy salary in the process. You get the vicarious, indirect knowledge. That's all. No Reservations is indeed a perfect showcase for who Anthony Bourdain really is. Too bad we all can't follow in his foodstuff footsteps.
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